Clash provides break from war

Rivalry returns to city, first time since 9/11

Military showdown

December 01, 2007|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun reporter

So much has changed, but so much has stayed the same.

It's a late fall day. Army and Navy, hyped to the hilt, prepare to play the only football game that matters. Next year, players from both sides will be on a battlefield without hash marks, fighting in an unpopular war.

It was true 40 years ago, and it is true today.

"I remember standing on that football field and not being able to catch my breath," Rob Taylor said. "And that was before the game."

Taylor, Navy's star receiver in 1967, recalled "the enormity of walking out there, knowing that those watching included people you'd only read about in history books - and that, for an hour or two, we were expected to relieve them of the things that weighed on their minds."

More than 70,000 will attend today's Army-Navy game at M&T Bank Stadium, millions more will watch on television, and those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will follow the game any way they can. The contest provides a respite from the war, however brief, as it did during Vietnam.

It's a football rivalry, but, for many, it's symbolic of much more.

"The game is bigger than all of us," said Steve Lindell, Army's starting quarterback in 1967. "On this day, [the Cadets] are representing the U.S. Army as an entity. We're shoulder to shoulder not only with those who went to West Point but with everyone who ever wore an Army uniform."

But the game is more than a touchstone, say those who have suited up.

"There's a purity to this game because of the selflessness of those playing," said John Cartwright, Navy's record-setting quarterback 40 years ago. "To these guys, it's not about what'll happen in the next NFL draft. Football is just a sidelight to what they do. They have a higher cause."

As in 1967, the service academies will play to a nation in combat. To date, 3,876 Americans have died in Iraq, where 162,000 U.S. troops now serve.

Forty years ago, American troop strength in Vietnam stood at 485,000, and the war had claimed more than 16,000 U.S. lives, sparking anti-war protests and counter-demonstrations from Baltimore to California.

On Dec. 2, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, campaigning for president, labeled the war "immoral." In Vietnam, Communist forces attacked a Green Beret compound along the Cambodian border. Against that backdrop, 9,000 miles away, Army and Navy prepared to play football before 101,000 fans at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia.

The teams sensed the country's pulse. A year earlier, in 1966, before a game at the University of California, the Army squad briefly found itself under siege.

"Students rocked our team buses and then egged them," said Jim O'Toole, Army's backup quarterback. "We had major police escorts that day."

Army marched into the 1967 game at 8-1, good enough to have earned its first-ever bowl bid. But Secretary of the Army Stanley Resor declined the invitation, saying that for the Cadets to play in the Sugar Bowl in wartime would be "a frivolous undertaking."

"That crushed our morale," O'Toole said. In protest, cadets removed every sugar bowl from the mess hall at West Point.

Navy (4-4-1) entered with hard-earned victories over Penn State and Syracuse but also a loss to upstart William & Mary.

Pre-game hijinks were rampant. The week before, cadets had kidnapped Bill XV, Navy's arthritic goat. Midshipmen retaliated by dumping Army's reveille gun into the Hudson River.

Grunts and gobs stationed around the world sent letters and telegrams to players, rooting them on.

"I probably got 40 cards a day, a third of them from Vietnam," said Bill Dow, Navy's team captain. Upbeat missives, all.

"The [troops] didn't write, `We're over here groveling in the mud,'" said Dow, a lineman. "They wrote, `We're pulling for you.'"

Taylor, Navy's split end, received a good-luck note from Admiral Isaac Kidd. "[Kidd] said: `You know, your career can make strange twists and turns if the right game is won or lost,'" Taylor said.

Navy won, 19-14, racing to a big early lead and staving off a late Army rally.

For three quarters, Army seemed flummoxed by Navy's I-formation, a wrinkle the Mids dreamed up for the game.

Early on, Navy guard Tom Speers pancaked an Army defender who had looked past Speers to try to decipher Navy's new backfield. "When I ran over him, he knew he'd been had," Speers said. "All I heard was, `Oh, crap!'"

At the gun, the brigade swarmed over the field, tore down the wooden goal posts and carried Cartwright, their star, off the field. To the side stood one Navy player, savoring all. "I can still feel the glow from the lights at that moment," Dow said. "I felt a huge warmth, like Army and Navy were one and that 102,000 people were cheering for us all.

"Go home? I could have stayed there for days."

A plebe gave Dow a raggedy three-foot piece of the post. Into that chunk of soft pine, Dow scratched the date and score, then painted it blue and gold. It remains a cherished keepsake.

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